Model institutions

Cover-ups by institutions only lead to speculation. This can be difficult for survivors of sexual harassment

October 24, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Hashtag Me too. Handwritten lettering Metoo. Vector illustration.

Hashtag Me too. Handwritten lettering Metoo. Vector illustration.

Raya Sarkar’s list of alleged sexual predators in Indian universities, published in 2017, set off a debate, including among feminists, on whether labelling someone a perpetrator without going through the due process of establishing guilt was the right approach. Opinion was divided, but need not be, for the #MeToo campaign’s practice of publicly naming alleged abusers has promoted a conversation on which a toxic silence prevailed earlier.

Due process is nevertheless necessary, as it is the way to establish safe and equitable work environments for all. We must consider both ways of addressing the problem. Even as M.J. Akbar stepped down as Minister of State for External Affairs after allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment mounted against him, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, faces possible dismissal following the investigation of complaints that he sexually harassed a PhD student. News reports have pointed out that there are some other such cases being dealt with in IISc, and that a high number of cases were reported in the institution in 2014-15.

While this is certainly disturbing, it also reflects the faith that the complainants have in their institute and, in fact, in due process. It is commendable that IISc is taking quick action on the complaints. If proven guilty, the professor’s dismissal will send a strong message that the institute has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. In the context of academia and research institutions where women students and researchers are reluctant to speak to Internal Complaints Committees about sexual harassment because they feel that it might be ineffective and counterproductive, such an action on the part of IISc would be a sign of improving conditions.

In a sense, government-funded institutes such as IITs and NITs have been active in dealing with complaints of sexual harassment. If IISc takes definitive action and ensures that the survivor’s interests are protected, research institutes that are loath to act on such complaints may also absorb this culture.

News reports have, however, not quoted any official from IISc. In the age of active voices on social media, this reluctance of the directors to communicate the situation to the media is problematic. This silence is not just going to give rise to speculation, but it is also part of the suffocating stranglehold of patriarchal values that protects perpetrators, even alleged ones.

As everyone knows, closing a wound only leads to severe infection. This applies to sexual harassment too. Cover-ups make for a more violent impact on the victim. Perhaps the government too can take a cue from institutions such as NIT Surat, IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, and now IISc and adopt proactive, decisive and just methods to address complaints of sexual harassment.

The writer covers science for The Hindu

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